Monday, March 8, 2010

Emissions of chemicals leading to acidification

The most important gas which leads to acidification is sulfur dioxide. Emissions of nitrogen oxides which are oxidised to form Nitric acid are of increasing importance due to stricter controls on emissions of sulfur containing compounds. 70 Tg(S) per year in the form of SO2 comes from fossil fuel combustion and industry, 2.8 Tg(S) from wildfires, and 7-8 Tg(S) per year from volcanoes.

Natural emissions
The principal natural phenomena that contribute acid-producing gases to the atmosphere are emissions from volcanoes and those from biological processes that occur on the land, in wetlands, and in the oceans. The major biological source of sulfur containing compounds is Dimethyl sulfide. The effects of acidic deposits have been detected in glacial ice thousands of years old in remote parts of the globe.

Human emissions
The principal cause of acid rain is sulfur and nitrogen compounds from human sources, such as electricity generation and motor vehicles. The gases can be carried hundreds of miles in the atmosphere before they are converted to acids and deposited.

Gas phase chemistry
In the gas phase sulfur dioxide is oxidised by reaction with the hydroxyl radical via a termolecular reaction:SO2 + OH· + M→ HOSO2· + M
which is followed by:HOSO2· + O2 → HO2· + SO3
In the presence of water sulfur trioxide is converted rapidly to sulfuric acid:SO3 + H2O + M → H2SO4 + M

Nitric acid is formed by the reaction of OH with Nitrogen dioxide:NO2 + OH· + M → HNO3 + M

Chemistry in cloud droplets
When clouds are present the loss rate of SO2 is faster than can be explained by gas phase chemistry alone. This is due to reactions in the liquid water droplets
Sulfur dioxide dissolves in water and then, like carbon dioxide, hydrolyses in a series of equilibrium reactions:
SO2 (g)+ H2O ? SO2·H2O SO2·H2O ? H++HSO3- HSO3- ? H++SO32- Oxidation
There are a large number of aqueous reactions of sulfur which oxidise it from S(IV) to S(VI) leading to the formation of sulfuric acid. The most important oxidation reactions are with ozone, hydrogen peroxide and oxygen (reactions with oxygen are catalysed by Iron and Manganese in the cloud droplets).
For more information see Seinfeld and Pandis (1998).

Aerosol formation
In the gas phase sulfuric and nitric can condense on existing aerosols or nucleate to form new aerosols. The nucleation process is an important source of new particles in the atmosphere and so emissions of sulfur containing compounds, as well as causing acidification also have a climate effect.

Acid deposition
Wet deposition
Wet deposition of acids occurs when any form of precipitation (rain, snow, etc) removes acids from the atmosphere and delivers it to the Earth's surface. This can result from the deposition of acids produced in the raindrops (see aqueous phase chemistry above) or by the precipitation removing the acids either in clouds or below clouds. Wet removal of both gases and aerosol are both of importance for wet deposition.

Dry deposition
Acid deposition also occurs via dry deposition in the absence of precipitation. This can be responsible for as much as 20 to 60% of total acid deposition. This occurs when particles and gases stick to the ground, plants or other surfaces.

Adverse effects
Decades of enhanced acid input has increased the environmental stress on high elevation forests and aquatic organisms in sensitive ecosystems. In extreme cases, it has altered entire biological communities and eliminated some fish species from certain lakes and streams. In many other cases, the changes have been more subtle, leading to a reduction in the diversity of organisms in an ecosystem. This is particularly true in the northeastern United States, where the rain tends to be most acidic, and often the soil has less capacity to neutralize the acidity.
Acid rain also can damage certain building materials and historical monuments.
Some scientists have suggested links to human health, but none have been proven.

Effects on lake ecology
There is a strong relationship between lower pH values and the loss of populations of fish in lakes. Below 4.5 virtually no fish survive, whereas levels of 6 or higher promote healthy populations. Acid in water inhibits the production of enzymes which enable fish's larvae to escape their eggs. It also mobilizes toxic metals such as aluminium in lakes. Aluminium causes some fish to produce an excess of mucus around their gills, preventing proper ventilation. Phytoplankton growth is inhibited by high acid levels, and animals which feed on it suffer.
Many lakes are subject to natural acid runoff from acid soils, and this can be triggered by particular rainfall patterns that concentrate the acid. An acid lake with newly-dead fish is not necessarily evidence of severe air-pollution.

Effects of acid rain on soil biology
Soil biology can be seriously damaged by acid rain. Some tropical microbes can quickly consume acids (Rodhe, 2005) but other types of microbe are unable to tolerate low pHs and are killed. The enzymes of these microbes are denatured (changed in shape so they no longer function) by the acid.
The hydronium ions of acid rain also mobilize toxins and leache away essential nutrients.
Forest soils tend to be inhabited by fungi, but acid rain shifts forest soils to be more bacterially dominated. In order to fix nitrogen many trees rely on fungi in a symbiotic relationship with their roots. If acidity inhibits the growth of these mycorrhizae associations this could lead to trees struggling to fix nitrogen without their symbiotic partners.

Other adverse effects
Trees are harmed by acid rain in a variety of ways. The waxy surface of leaves is broken down and nutrients are lost, making trees more susceptible to frost, fungi, and insects. Root growth slows and as a result fewer nutrients are taken up. Toxic ions are mobilized in the soil, and valuable minerals are leached away or (as in the case of phosphate) become bound to aluminium or iron compounds, or to clay.
The toxic ions released due to acid rain form the greatest threat to humans. Mobilized copper has been implicated in outbreaks of diarrhea/diarrhoea in young children and it is thought that water supplies contaminated with aluminium cause Alzheimer's disease.
Acid rain can cause corrosion of ancient and valuable statues and has caused considerable damage. This is because the sulfuric acid in the rain chemically reacts with the calcium in the stones (lime stone, sandstone, marble and granite) to create gypsum, which then flakes off. This is also commonly seen on old gravestones where the acid rain can cause the inscription to become completely illegible.
Acid rain also causes an increased rate of oxidation for iron.
Prevention methods
Technical solutions
In the United States, many coal-burning power plants use Flue gas desulfurization (FGD) to remove sulfur-containing gases from their stack gases. An example of FGD is the wet scrubber which is commonly used in the U.S. and many other countries. A wet scrubber is basically a reaction tower equipped with a fan that extracts hot smoky stack gases from a power plant into the tower. Lime or limestone in slurry form is also injected into the tower to mix with the stack gases and combine with the sulfur dioxide present. The calcium carbonate of the limestone produces pH-neutral calcium sulfate that is physically removed from the scrubber. That is, the scrubber turns sulfur pollution into industrial sulfates.
In some areas the sulfates are sold to chemical companies as gypsum when the purity of calcium sulfate is high. In others, they are placed in a land-fill.
International treaties
A number of international treaties on the long range transport of atmospheric pollutants have been agreed e.g. Sulphur Emissions Reduction Protocol and Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.
Emissions trading
An even more benign regulatory scheme involves emission trading. In this scheme, every current polluting facility is given an emissions license that becomes part of capital equipment. Operators can then install pollution control equipment, and sell parts of their emissions licenses. The main effect of this is to give operators real economic incentives to install pollution controls. Since public interest groups can retire the licenses by purchasing them, the net result is a continuously decreasing and more diffused set of pollution sources. At the same time, no particular operator is ever forced to spend money without a return of value from commercial sale of assets.

What causes acid rain?

Acid deposition is a general term that includes more than simply acid rain. Acid deposition primarily results from the transformation of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides into dry or moist secondary pollutants such as sulphuric acid (H2SO4), ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) and nitric acid (HNO3). The transformation of SO2 and NOx to acidic particles and vapours occurs as these pollutants are transported in the atmosphere over distances of hundreds to thousands of kilometers.
Acidic particles and vapours are deposited via two processes - wet and dry deposition. Wet deposition is acid rain, the process by which acids with a pH normally below 5.6 are removed from the atmosphere in rain, snow, sleet or hail. Dry deposition takes place when particles such as fly ash, sulphates, nitrates, and gases (such as SO2 and NOx), are deposited on, or absorbed onto, surfaces. The gases can then be converted into acids when they contact water.

What is pH?

A pH scale is used to measure the amount of acid in a liquid-like water. Because acids release hydrogen ions, the acid content of a solution is based on the concentration of hydrogen ions and is expressed as "pH." This scale is used to measure the acidity of rain samples.

0 = maximum acidity
7 = neutral point in the middle of the scale
14 = maximum alkalinity (the opposite of acidity)

The smaller the number on the pH scale, the more acidic the substance is. Rain measuring between 0 and 5 on the pH scale is acidic and therefore called "acid rain." Small number changes on the pH scale actually mean large changes in acidity.

For example, a change in just one unit from pH 6.0 to pH 5.0 would indicate a tenfold increase in acidity. Clean rain usually has a pH of 5.6. It is slightly acidic because of carbon dioxide which is naturally present in the atmosphere. Vinegar, by comparison, is very acidic and has a pH of 3.

An Ugly Effect of Fossil Fuels: Acid Rain

Fossil fuels-oil, coal, and natural gas-are running out quickly, and since much of the world's power depends on these resources, in the next few hundred years this could be a major problem.
However, if we aren't more careful about the way we use these natural resources, we won't have to worry about that; the world won't survive that long.
The burning of fossil fuels pollute the environment in many ways, including contributing to the greenhouse effect and producing harmful by-products that are dangerous to our health. One of these side effects, which causes the majority of the damage to the ecosystem, is acid rain.

The two chemicals that contribute the most to acid rain (which includes all forms of precipitation) are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. In the United States, the main cause of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels. When these chemicals are released into the air, they react with other compounds, such as water, due to the heat of the sun.
These new chemical compounds form clouds and when it rains, the pollutants re-enter the ecosystem. Acid rain is measured on a pH scale, and while normal rain has a level of 5.5, acid rain in the United States is sometimes a low as 4.3. The pollutants in our air might come from our own country, but wind currents carry them as well, so when we burn fossil fuels, it pollutes the rest of the world and vice versa. By discontinuing the use of fossil fuels, we can't get rid of the pollutants already in our environment, but we can stop new ones from entering it. Acid rain can only be counterbalanced by very carefully adding other chemicals, such as limestone, to the environment to react with the acidity. However, the ecosystem effected will never be 100% the same. Alternative energy powers can create energy without the end result of destroying the earth and her beauty. Acid rain causes destruction not only where it falls, but also all over the country and planet, since lakes, rivers, and streams carry the water throughout the land and eventually to the ocean. Along the way, the animals and plants that depend on this water to live (including humans) are affected and may die from the excess chemicals.
To do our part to reduce acid rain, we all must conserve energy so that we use less fossil fuel and support the research and development of alternative fuel programs. So far in the United States, hydroelectric power (energy made from water) and nuclear power (energy made by splitting atoms) are being most readily developed. Other forms of alternative energy include solar, tidal, geothermal, wind, and biomass power. By cutting back on the amounts of fossil fuels we use and pursuing these options, we can stop acid rain and begin to clean up the earth.